Why the “feedback sandwich” tastes bad

Dale Carnegie, the father of all self-help books and motivational speakers used the term “criticism sandwich” to help people structure feedback on an unwanted behavior, aka “constructive feedback”, “negative feedback” or just “criticism”. In “How to win friends and influence people” he writes: “Beginning with praise is like the dentist who begins his work with Novocain. The patient still gets a drilling, but the Novocain kills the pain.”

The structure goes like this:

Start with praise: “The way you organized your presentation is really impressive. I can follow very easily”. This is the “top bun” of the sandwich.

Follow with criticism: “What you were saying, the content, actually is wrong. I think you should research that further.” This is “the meat” or “the seitan” or “the avocado” of your criticism.

End with praise: “The little flower on the last slide is super!” This is the “bottom bun” of the sandwich.

Börk. Not appetizing for me. Here is why I don’t like this:

It feels strategic, dishonest and patronizing

The triple structure and the mix of positive and negative messages leaves me confused: am I being praised, being criticized — what is this about? Also, the structure feels like someone wants to influence or nudge me in a certain direction rather than simply sharing their observation. This may be my Germanic upbringing, but I feel I can deal with someone telling me straight on if they prefer I did something different. No sweat — I KNOW it is their perspective and not “the truth”.

It creates distrust about praise

If overused (and with me, personally, overuse means used once 🙂 ), the feedback sandwich can lead to people becoming wary of praise. Someone says something positive about me: there must be a hidden criticism lurking in the corner somewhere. Instead of enjoying the well meant praise, people start to wonder what is wrong. Not a good thing in the workplace, not a good thing in your life. It took me a long time to really be able to be happy about someone praising me and to see it as a way of connecting. A diet of feedback sandwiches probably contributed to that.

So — what to do instead?

Obviously this depends on the context, the culture, the maturity of the people involved etc. etc., so I can’t give you advice on what to do in every situation. However, there are some considerations and questions that you can ask yourself before asking someone to do something different that may be helpful:

  • How can you ensure that the person feels that you appreciate them as a person and that you are trying to be helpful and connect with them rather than disconnect and put yourself a step up from them?
  • How can you be clear on what you would like changed and why this is important to you?
  • How can you stay open for dialogue and “negotiation”?
  • How can you come to an agreement on a way forward and how can you follow up on this?
  • How can both leave the situation with a strengthened connection and appreciation of each other?

Here are two very different examples. Let’s start with two coaches (supervisor and coach, maybe):

Tanja: “Hi Monika, do you have a minute, I’d like to share an observation on your last coaching session with Karla.”

Monika: “Sure, I’m in a rush right now, but maybe in 30 minutes? I am glad that you are letting me know about what we are talking about.”

Tanja: “No problem”

Half an hour later

Tanja: “Thank you, Monika — you know, I just want to share my observation, this is by no means “the truth” or meant as a criticism. Just what I perceived. Are you ok with me sharing?”

Monika: “Yes, please — I am very curious.”

Tanja: “I heard that Karla was talking about her difficulties accepting herself and her tone of voice was rather soft. On the recording, I heard you laugh at this point. I was wondering what that was about?”

Monika: “Oh, it’s just something I know very well from myself, so I laughed because I gelled with it so much”

Tanja: “Ah, ok. For Karla, it might have seemed a bit like a disconnect? So I was wondering how you see it?”

Monika: “Thank you! That is really interesting. I’ll check if I do this more often. I don’t want to come across as laughing about my clients!”

Tanja: “I am sure! Thanks for being so open!”

Monika: “Thank you for the feedback!”

And maybe a different example from a context of teenage boys:

Klaus: “Hey man, stop that!”

Franz: “What?”

Klaus: “Don’t chew your gum that loud. It grosses me out.”

Franz: “Ok, ok. No offense. Sure.”

I think the “structure” or the “plan” or whatever is not what makes feedback useful and relationship building, but thinking (or intuiting) the above questions.

If you want to think more around these issues or find out about who we are, come to our weekly free meetup and exchanges:

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